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Spittoon or steamer?! A Thai culinary marvel. February 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. Fritzjambo has done it again. You may recall our friend Fritzjambo as the creator of “The BEST no-knead bread” ( see my earlier post of the same name for more on that, plus recipes), as well as the person who gave me a Swiss Army pot to bake my no-knead bread in.

Well, Fritzjambo and Mrs. F. were in the area this week and chose to host our weekly gathering of the Friday Night Supper Club at their place. When we arrived, Fritzjambo beamed at me and announced that he’d brought me something I was going to really love. Then he whipped out what appeared to be a matte silver spittoon with an inverted straw hat in the top.

“Uhhhhh…. ”

“It’s a Thai steamer. You put water in the “spittoon,” bring it to a boil, set your rice or veggies in the bamboo steamer, put a Revere-ware top over them, and voila!”


Fritzjambo was right: After recovering from my confusion, I do love my new steamer. I’m not sure I’d really be brave enough to steam rice (though, lacking a microwave, I have steamed cooked rice to rewarm it many times). But the possibilities for steamed veggies are right up there. I’d just bought a whopping package of snow peas on sale at my local store, as well as broccoli, green and yellow wax beans, asparagus… yum. Thanks, Fritzie!

Now, you all might not just stumble on a steamer like this; at least, I’d never seen one before. But that doesn’t mean you can’t help me celebrate my new acquisition by whipping up some wonderful Thai food at home. So I thought I’d dig up a few promising Thai recipes to share. After all, few things in life are better than Thai food!

Unfortunately, this proved to be a bit more of a challenge than I’d expected. I first reached for a cookbook I really love called simply Red Hot! (Hermes House, 2007) This book has almost everything: It’s beautiful, it’s helpful, and the recipes are delicious. Hmmm, here were two Thai recipes that sounded especially good: Thai Tempeh Cakes with Chilli Sauce and Thai Mixed Vegetable Curry with Lemon Grass Rice. But, er. When I looked at the bazillion ingredients and complicated directions for each dish, I decided that this was a really good reason to find a good Thai restaurant near you! (Our favorite, alas, is way up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in a bright-purple house on the main drag, in case you’re ever up there.)

Never willing to give up without a fight, I turned to another amazing cookbook in my collection, Global Vegetarian Cooking by Troth Wells (Interlink Books, 2001). Ah, much better! Mushroom Soup with Lemon Grass and Noodles with Basil leapt out at me. But, hmm, not everyone has a huge lemon grass plant growing in their greenhouse like we do, much less access to lemon grass, galangal, and lime or lemon leaves at the store. So let’s go with the noodles, shall we?

             Thai Noodles with Basil

1/2 pound flat rice noodles, fresh or dried

3 tablespoons fresh sweet basil, chopped

1 to 4 bird’s-eye chilis, halved and de-seeded

1 teaspoon sesame oil

1 teaspoon concentrated yellow bean sauce

1-2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon sugar

a little water


lemon juice

If using dried rice noodles, soak them in hot but not boiling water to soften them. Fresh rice noodles can be added directly to the wok or dipped in hot water to separate them before cooking.

Mix together yellow bean sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and water. Heat oil in a wok and fry the chilis for half a minute to make them less fiery. (Unless you know you can eat fire, it’s best to start with half a chili and work up from there.) Add the noodles (thoroughly drained if they were soaked in hot water), and fry for another minute or so. Add the sesame oil and 2 tablespoons basil. Combine well and then add the yellow bean sauce-soy sauce mixture. Stir-fry for about 1 minute, until it looks done. Add a splash of lemon juice, stir, remove freom the wok and keep warm. Heat a little more oil in the wok and fry the remaining basil for a few seconds ’til crispy; sprinkle over the noodles and serve. Serves 2.

Finally, here are two super-simple recipes from another favorite cookbook, Real Vegetarian Thai by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 1997). (Non-vegetarians, note: Nancie also wrote a bestselling cookbook called Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking. Check it out!) The coconut rice goes beautifully with any Thai food, though the author especially recommends it with Thai curries, grilled vegetables, and green papaya salad. And of course, I have to give you a Thai curry!

           Coconut Rice with Cilantro and Fresh Ginger

1 can (14 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk (about 1 3/4 cups)

1 3/4 cups water

6 quarter-sized slices peeled fresh ginger

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups jasmine rice (can substitute basmati or any long-grain white rice)

1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

In a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, combine the coconut milk, water, ginger, and salt and bring to a rolling boil over medium heat. Add the rice and stir well. When the liquid boils again, cover, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 25 minutes. The rice kernels will be tender and the liquid will be absorbed. Remove the saucepan from the heat and let stand, covered, for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan and remove and discard the ginger. Add the cilantro and, using a fork, toss gently to distribute the cilantro evenly. Fluff the rice kernels and serve hot or warm. Serves 4-6.

               Red Curry with Red Sweet Peppers, Snow Peas, and Tofu

1 can (14 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk (about 1 3/4 cups)

1 to 2 tablespoons red curry paste

8 ounces tofu or tempeh, cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1/4 cup vegetable stock

1 tablespoon palm sugar or brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon soy sauce

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 red sweet (bell) pepper, cut into long, thin strips

4 ounces snow peas, trimmed

Shake the coconut milk can well. Spoon out 1/3 cup into a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden or bamboo spoon, until it thickens and releases its fragrance, about 3 minutes. Add the curry paste and cook for another 3 minutes, mashing, scraping, and stirring often to soften the paste and combine it with the coconut milk. Add the tofu or tempeh cubes and stir gently to coat with the curry sauce. Add the remaining coconut milk, vegetable stock, sugar, soy sauce, and salt and stir well. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to maintain at a gentle boil, and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add the red pepper strips and snow peas to the curry and stir gently. (Note from Silence: At this point, I would also add a couple of tablespoons of shredded basil leaves and possibly a handful of cashews.) Remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve hot or warm with rice. Serves 4-6.   

Yum!!! Are you feeling inspired? I certainly am! Clearly, a delicious Thai meal is in our immediate future. If you have any favorite Thai recipes, please share them with us! (Becca, I think you need to post that amazing Thai noodle recipe you shared with us over at BrightHaven Times. Talk about perfect timing!)

           ‘Til next time,



A simple Greek soup. February 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Mr. Hays, the patriarch of our beloved Hays family, is planning to celebrate his 90th birthday by going on a cruise to the Greek Islands this April. (An appropriate choice, since one of his first foreign service posts was to Greece back in the day. It should be fun to go back!)

As faithful readers know, Mr. Hays is an enthusiastic and accomplished cook who has shared some wonderful recipes with me (and thus with you on this blog). So I thought I’d do my part of the trip preparations by sending him Greek recipes to help him get in a Mediterranean mood. And of course, since they’re so healthy and delicious, why not share them with you all? This week’s recipe is for Greece’s most famous soup, Avgolemono. It’s everything a springtime soup should be: Easy, healthy, flavorful, and fast. With March just minutes away, it seemed like the perfect choice!


7 1/2 cups flavorful chicken stock

1/2 cup orzo pasta

3 eggs

juice of 1 large lemon

salt and pepper

lemon slices to garnish

In a large pot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the orzo and cook for 5 minutes. Beat the eggs until frothy, then add the lemon juice and a tablespoon of cold water. Slowly stir in a ladleful of the hot chicken stock, then add one or two more. Pour the egg-stock mixture back into the pot of stock, off the heat, and stir well. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately, garnished with lemon slices. (Do not let the soup boil once the eggs have been added or it will curdle.) Serves 4-6.

This recipe comes from the big, beautiful book The Complete Mediterranean Cookbook by Jacqueline Clarke and Joanna Farrow (Hermes House, 2007). If you can find it, you’ll be glad you did!

But what if you’re a vegetarian like me? Obviously, I’d swap out the chicken stock for veggie stock, but that won’t give you the bright flavor that chicken stock would. So I’d also add a tablespoon of olive oil or butter (or both) to create a brighter, richer flavor. And much as I adore pasta, I’m not big on it in soup, so I confess, I’d swap out the orzo for rice. Maybe I’d even serve it with some baby arugula and feta cheese crumbled on top of each bowl. Hmmm, a few roasted red pepper strips? Yum!!!

If you try it or a variation, let me know what you think. And keep an eye out for more Greek recipes here on Poor Richard’s Almanac!

         ‘Til next time,


Baking soda saves the day. February 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. Usually when I make pasta for supper, there’s a nice little bit left for my lunch the following day.* But unfortunately, I’m not the best at reheating it. Luddites that our friend Ben and I am, we have no microwave. So I’ll typically put the pasta in one of my heavy, wonderful cast-iron LeCreuset pans with a little broth or milk (depending on the type of pasta sauce) to prevent sticking. Then I’ll turn it on the lowest flame our gas burner can produce, put on the lid, and wander off.

This is not what you’d call a smart move. Inevitably, by the time I remember that I put the pasta on the stove, the bottom’s burned onto the pan. You’d think one or two experiences like this would be enough to teach me, but I just can’t make myself stand over the stove when there’s so much else to do. I have found that, if it’s not actually burned, turning off the heat and letting it sit for five minutes with the lid on tends to cause it to release its death-grip on the pan. But if it has burned, I scrape off what I can, fill the pan with soapy water, set it in the sink, and await the arrival of the ultimate solution: Ben. Being stronger, he can usually muscle the burnt part off the pan, and thanks to LeCreuset’s enamel coating, my pots and pans have been able to stand up to the abuse. 

Now, there is a solution to this problem: Baking the leftover pasta rather than reheating it on the stove. I don’t know why this works, but if I put the pasta in an oven-proof container and cover it with aluminum foil, it never burns. But I hate the waste of gas and electricity involved in heating the whole oven just to warm up a half-plate of pasta. And our toaster oven has disappeared under a mountain of medications for our dog Molly, not to mention the peanut butter and bread required to administer said meds, canned dogfood, cans of beef gravy for her dry dogfood, etc.etc. At this point, I’d need a grant to launch an archaeological expedition in order to unearth it. (Poor OFB has been missing his Sunday toast, but for some reason, he keeps declining when I offer him one of Molly’s peanut-butter sandwiches instead.)

Unfortunately, a couple of days ago I really managed to char a pot of pasta. Our friend Ben scrubbed and scrubbed, and there was still a hideous blackened layer on the bottom of the pot. And wouldn’t you know, this is the one pot I use every single day. It’s the perfect size and weight. I’ve had it since I got my first job and my first apartment. I was not ready to give up on it without a fight! But what to do?

I was almost at wit’s end (not a long journey, for me) when a small glimmer emerged from the gloom and a tiny voice somewhere in my brain murmured, “You know, if you put baking soda in the pan with enough water to cover it and boil it, then let it sit, that gunk will come off.” I can’t remember when or where I came upon that tip, but I figured that I had nothing to lose, so I tried it. (I’ve also read that you can use a fabric-softener sheet in much the same way to loosen burnt-on food, but I think I’d rather put the pot to work in our greenhouse than think about adding fabric softener to our diet.)

Before I made our supper, I boiled the baking soda in the pot, then turned it off and let it sit until we’d finished and OFB was preparing to wash up. (Talk about a great arrangement! I cook, he cleans. Good deal!) And this time, when he tackled the pot, the gunk came off. Thanks to baking soda, my favorite pot was saved!

You all probably don’t burn stuff on your pots the way I do. But if you ever do, remember to reach for the baking soda. It works!

* Unfortunately, this could not be said for last night’s menu. I had made a pasta sauce with sweet onion, sliced mushrooms, diced red and yellow bell peppers, and sliced black olives, sauteeing everything in a mix of olive oil and butter, then squeezing in some lemon juice and tossing in a generous amount of really fresh feta cheese and a little shredded white Cheddar just before serving. I’d also made a big pot of fresh sugar snap peas from the farmers’ market and a huge salad. Before my stupefied eyes, OFB somehow managed to engulf his plate of pasta and sugar snaps, most of my plate of pasta and sugar snaps, and all the leftover pasta and sugar snaps, along with a big bowl of salad. I’m sure you’ll be relieved to hear that he still appears to be alive this morning.

          ‘Til next time,


Guano happens. February 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood heard from Curmudgeon of Weed Whackin’ Wenches fame this afternoon on the subject of what makes a good Valentine’s Day gift for gardeners. This year, Silence and I went in on a mutual Valentine’s present in the form of a fabulous antique seed box (see our earlier post, “Deluxe seed storage,” for more on it). Curmudgeon wanted to let us know that Wing Nut had presented her with worm poo for Valentine’s Day. (See her post, “Giddy about worm poo,” at http://www.weedwhackinwenches.blogspot.com/ for the full story.)

There is only one possible response to this for the passionate gardener: “How sweet!”

Especially for those of us of the organic persuasion, excrement as fertilizer and soil amendment is something of a Grail quest. As oenologists will rhapsodize over a particularly choice vintage or a specific terroir, we’ll swap stories of how big our tomatoes grew after we fertilized them with worm castings from our earthworm composter. Or get into heated arguments about the merits of, say, well-rotted chicken manure versus mushroom compost (which, lest you think our friend Ben is straying from the topic, is made from composted horse manure). Or spend hours and days trying to determine if llama poo is really a better fertilizer than cow flops, or if it’s just more exotic. Or invite friends to come crawl around under our bunny hutches and take home some nice rabbit droppings.

To the non-gardener, our friend Ben can only say, just thank God I haven’t started on another one of my rants about the benefits of composting toilets and outhouses, and how jealous I am every time I see that someone else has one or both. But I digress.

High on the Manure Mystique Scale is a substance called guano. Guano is a more hifalutin name for bat and bird droppings, though apparently, while all bat droppings qualify as bat guano, only exotic birds are allowed to add the G-word to their excretions. One never hears mention of chicken guano or goose guano, only of Peruvian seabird guano or Antarctic puffin guano or what have you. (Poor chickens, whose high-nitrogen droppings make a superb fertilizer when mixed with straw and allowed to compost so it doesn’t burn the plants, are more accustomed to hearing their excrement roundly condemned as “chicken ****.” Our friend Ben is covering their ears.) Perhaps California condor or ivory-billed woodpecker droppings would be considered exotic enough to qualify, but our friend Ben does not know who determines these things, so I can’t ask them.

Mind you, even bat guano takes on added cachet when it’s from the sunny tropics. Our friend Ben should know. One year, I bought an International House of Guano from that bastion of all things guano, Worm’s Way. It contained Jamaican bat guano, Mexican bat guano, and Indonesian bat guano. You can also purchase these guanos individually, along with T-shirts to show your support for your favorite. (Worm’s Way also sells a more general “Guano Happens” T-shirt. Check them out on our blogroll at right.)

But—at last arriving at the point of this post—guano is not just for gardening. It’s also good for your ears.

A hasty disclaimer: Our friend Ben is all for herbal remedies and other non-invasive alternative practices. But note that little phrase, “non-invasive.” People who stick neti pots up their noses or lighted candles in their ears strike our friend Ben as a few guano piles short of a load, and I feel that way about this whole colon-cleanse mania, too, just so you know. Our friend Ben has never recovered from the fateful time in my vulnerable youth when I read the tale of a yogi who apparently was able to expel his intestines, intact but inside-out, wash them off thoroughly with salt water, and somehow manage to get them back where they belonged. He was revered and lived to be over 100 years old. But if that’s what it takes to reach an advanced age, maybe an early death isn’t all that bad.

Of course, if our friend Ben could block my ears with guano so I wouldn’t be subjected to the clamor of people screeching into their cell phones every time I went out in public, it might actually be worth it. But the guano I’m referring to is music. It is reggae music made by a group from Charlottesville, Virginia called the Guano Boys. Our friend Ben owns their first two CDs, “Guano Boys”—the cover of which shows a stylized bat with a guitar hovering over three planters that are growing batlike foliage—and “Guano Happens.”

Heading to their website, www.guanoboy.com, our friend Ben found the following description of the band: “With their heads in the Caribbean Islands and their feet firmly rooted in the Appalachian Mountains, Guano Boys offer a distinct brand of island music styles. Original sounds in the style of reggae, soca, ska, and calypso with an occasional roots cover create an enticing musical recipe.”

Our friend Ben prefers not to connect the words “recipe” and “guano,” and poor Silence, an accomplished cook, is even more appalled by the juxtaposition. (Though, as our friend Ben pointed out, there is the ever-popular manure tea… ) But the Guano Boys’ music is good. If you enjoy reggae and island music, and you happen to be a gardener, what more could you want? Except, perhaps, one of those colorful guano T-shirts. Or maybe an International House of Guano, or a good-sized bag of worm poo, for your next celebratory occasion. A big jug of manure tea, anyone?

Frugal living tip #8. February 23, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. It’s Monday, and that means it’s time to start the week with another Frugal Living Tip from Poor Richard’s Almanac. Today’s tip comes to you courtesy of Becca over at BrightHaven Times (http://brighthaven.wordpress.com/).

Becca e-mailed to let us know that she was participating in a seed swap this year, which both saved her money and allowed her to try lots of new things in her garden. Our friend Ben and I think a seed swap is a fantastic idea! Not only does it save money—you don’t have to buy a whole packet of every single seed you want to try, which can add up to serious money faster than you can say “Boxcar Willie Heirloom Tomatoes”—but it means you can pass along extra seeds while they’re still at peak viability. (The percentage of seeds that germinate drops, sometimes very dramatically, with each year that you store a pack of seeds. That’s why seed companies put “Packed for 2009” or whatever the year is on their seed packs, so you know you’re getting fresh seed with the highest percentage of germination.)

That’s the sensible, frugal part: Free seeds!!! The fun part is, as Becca pointed out, that you might have a chance to try something (or many things) you wouldn’t ordinarily grow. I headed over to Becca’s gardening blog, Little Green Bees (http://www.littlegreenbees.com), to check out the list of seeds she was receiving and sending, and noted that broomcorn, a plant I always thought would be a lot of fun to grow, was on the list. (See Becca’s February 12 post, “Seed Swap/Round Robin,” to check it out for yourself.)

Great idea, Becca, and thanks for sharing it with us! If you’re a gardener with seeds to spare, this is definitely a win/win for everybody.

           ‘Til next time,


Let’s make our bed and lie in it. February 22, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Some things really push our friend Ben’s and Silence Dogood’s hot buttons. For example, when some idiots raise a wild animal as a pet, and then, when the animal acts like what it is, a wild animal, with tragic consequences to innocent victims and itself, other people make fun of it. Uh, folks, an innocent animal was killed. An innocent human being was mauled and horribly maimed for life. Is there something funny about this? We think not.

But we digress. What we’d like to talk about today is waste, not of human (or animal) life, but of human abundance. Yesterday, our friend Ben and Silence were speeding to our vet’s to pick up more medications for our most-beloved golden retriever, Molly, who is fighting a very brave fight against liver cancer. (So far, Molly feels fine and is doing fine as long as she takes her meds, which we serve up in a peanut butter sandwich, to her delight.)

Our vet is quite a distance from us, and as we drove along, we passed a discount furniture store that had apparently gone out of business. Its gaudy roadside signs were gone, there was no seasonal schlock piled up in its parking lot, and yellow “do not cross” tape was up where we used to see cars. Normally, we’d have thought, “another quiet little tragedy” and driven by with heads lowered in sorrow and shame. But not this time.

That’s because one feature that caught our eyes was a huge dumpster at one side of the defunct business. The dumpster in question was piled high with brand-new, plastic-wrapped mattresses. There must have been dozens of mattresses in there for the pile to reach that high.

Silence and I were, frankly, horrified. Mind you, we’re horrified when we see that people have dumped perfectly usable furniture, dishware, appliances and the like at the curb for trash pickup rather than making the extremely minimal effort to take them to the local Goodwill, Salvation Army, St. Vincent DePaul Society, or what have you. Would it really have killed them to give their so-called “trash” to people in need rather than adding it to our landfills? Grrrrr. But compared to a business dumping dozens of unused mattresses in a dumpster, this is chump change.

Without giving it more than a second’s thought, our friend Ben and Silence came up with these possibilities for those mattresses: Homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, orphanages, hospices. We’re sure there are many, many more we haven’t thought of. Why not donate them and get a tax writeoff? Why throw out perfectly good merchandise when our country is on the verge of a depression, and unemployment levels are skyrocketing? Why, why, why?!!!!

The owners of the business were obviously not there as Silence and I passed by. Nobody was. So our friend Ben supposes we’ll never get an answer. But we still think it’s a good, a very good, question.

Happy birthday, big guy! February 22, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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It’s me, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame. Today, February 22, is George Washington’s birthday, and I’m here to help you celebrate with a little quiz. What do you really know about the Father of Our Country?

If you find you could use a little help with these answers, I highly recommend a little book I found this past fall called Don’t Know Much About George Washington by Kenneth C. Davis. This little $4.99 paperback packs a lot of information about our first president into a fun-to-read format that the whole family will enjoy. (The cartoon illustrations reinforce the publisher’s intentions of directing the book to 8- to 12-year-old kids. But like so many references aimed at kids, it’s a lot more entertaining way to get top-notch historical information than plowing through a long, serious tome, even for history buffs like me.)

Back to the quiz: As always, you’ll find the answers at the end. But no cheating, now!

1. George Washington was:

a. a surveyor

b. a Freemason

c. a general

d. a president

e. a farmer

f. all of the above

2. George Washington visited which of the following countries?

a. England

b. France

c. Barbados

d. Canada

e. none of the above

f. all of the above

3. Where did George Washington go to college?

a. Harvard

b. Yale

c. William and Mary

d. Princeton (then known as the College of New Jersey)

e. Washington and Lee

f. The University of Virginia

4. George Washington’s true love was:

a. Martha Custis

b. Dolley Madison

c. Sally Fairfax

d. Betsy Ross

e. Molly Pitcher

5. George Washington’s false teeth were made of:

a. wood

b. cow’s teeth

c. ivory

d. glass

e. gold

f. porcelain

6. Which of the following are true:

a. As a boy, George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree.

b. To show his immense strength, as a young man, Washington tossed a coin clear across the Rappahannock River.

c. Despite seeing military action hundreds of times and having several horses shot out from under him, Washington was never even wounded.

d. Washington signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

e. Washington’s children were named Martha (known as Patsy) and George Jr. 

f. Washington chose to be buried in his Masonic regalia.

7. George Washington was born and lived in:

a. Washington, D.C.

b. Philadelphia

c. New York

d. Virginia

e. Maryland

f. Boston

8. True or false? George Washington:

a. Said “I cannot tell a lie.”

b. Never smiled.

c. Owned slaves.

d. Powdered his hair.

e. Designed his own uniforms.

f. Died from politeness.

9. George Washington was happiest:

a. At his plantation, Mount Vernon.

b. With his family.

c. Experimenting with the latest horticultural and agricultural advances.

d. On horseback.

e. Entertaining guests at home.

f. In the company of his military attaches.

10. George Washington’s greatest achievement was:

a. Marrying the wealthiest widow in Virginia.

b. Winning the Revolutionary War.

c. Becoming our first president.

d. Freeing his slaves.

e. Walking away from a lifetime presidency.

f. Dying a wealthy man.

And now, the answers:

1. F, all of the above. Like many men of his day, George Washington did many things, and did many things well. The concept of specializing, becoming, say, a computer technician or an MBA and never doing anything else, was virtually unknown in Colonial times. The sparse population meant that almost everyone had to be something of a jack of all trades.

2.  C, Barbados. As a young man, Washington accompanied his older brother and mentor, Lawrence Washington, to Barbados, hoping the balmy climate would cure Lawrence’s consumption (tuberculosis). Sadly, the cure didn’t work. After Lawrence’s death, George ultimately inherited his brother’s plantation, Mount Vernon. Unlike Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and many of the other Founding Fathers, Washington never went to England or France. And though he made a name for himself in the French and Indian Wars, he never made it as far north as Canada.   

3. This is a trick question. The answer is “none of the above.” Like Bill Gates, George Washington never went to college. But there’s no question that he regretted it all his life. His pet project was to have a university established in the capital that would be open to all American citizens, so that none would be denied a college education as he had been. Though Washington himself didn’t live to see his dream realized, eventually American University was established in Washington, D.C. as a direct result of his efforts.

4. The correct answer is C, Sally Fairfax. The young George Washington had the misfortune to fall passionately in love with his best friend’s wife. Though nothing ever came of his infatuation, it lasted through his entire life. Washington eventually married Martha Custis, the extremely wealthy widow of another Virginia planter, Daniel Parke Custis, in what would today be called “the marriage of the century.” Martha’s vast wealth enabled George to set himself up in style. And she and George enjoyed a happy, devoted marriage, despite its essential nature as a marriage of convenience. But it was never the passionate attachment that George fantasized about with Sally, with whom he remained in touch until his death. However, if I had to try my hand at matchmaking, I’d have hooked George up with the tall, attractive, dynamic Dolley Madison. I think they’d have been an amazing pair! 

5. Lack of understanding of dental hygeine caused plenty of upper-class people throughout Europe and the Colonies to lose their teeth at an early age. Unlike the lower classes, who ate whole-grain bread and never got a taste of sugar, the wealthy classes enjoyed the novelties of white bread and sugar without understanding the need to brush their tooth-rotting residue off after eating them. Additionally, the complete oblivion to the concept of nutrition meant that many people of the time were vitamin- and mineral-deficient, which contributed to gum disease and loosening of teeth. By the time he was president, poor George had exactly one tooth left in his head. Over his lifetime, he had many sets of dentures made, including sets from cow’s teeth and hippopotamus ivory. (Yikes! No wonder he never smiled.) But he never had a set made from wood, despite legends to the contrary.

6. The correct answers are  C and F. Washington’s ability to emerge unscathed time and again from a hail of bullets conferred invulnerable status on him and made him an icon to his men. He was never so much as scratched, despite putting himself in the forefront of the action and having several horses shot out from under him. And like many surveyors (and, for that matter, Colonial and European intellectuals of the day), Washington was a devout Freemason, who chose to be buried in the attire of his Masonic rank.  But even the wrong answers have some basis in truth. Though the stories about the cherry tree and the coin toss were invented by a man called Parson Weems in an early biography of Washington, in an attempt to fill in the blanks of his early life, there is no question that he was both incredibly honorable and incredibly strong. He spent his whole life trying to do what was noble and right, and even as an old man, he could defeat any younger opponent in feats of strength and skill. But what about  D and E? Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention, but was unable to be present to sign the Declaration of Independence because he was already in the field engaging the British. And though Washington was a devoted family man, he had no children of his own. Instead, he became a father to the widowed Martha Washington’s two children by her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, Martha (known as Patsy) and John Parke (known as Jack).

7. Though the adult Washington spent time in New York, Philadelphia, and the new capital city (then known as the Federal City, only later as Washington, D.C.), he was born and raised in Virginia, and his home, Mount Vernon, as well as his heart, were there. The correct answer is D.

8. The correct answers are C through F, though the others have merit even though they’re not literally true. Washington is not actually recorded by any contemporary as saying “I cannot tell a lie,” and, as we’ve seen, the whole cherry-tree incident was invented by an early biographer. But Washington held himself to such a high standard that he in fact probably never did tell a lie. He wore painful and unsightly dentures that, with his inherent formality, caused him to appear reserved and unsmiling in public. But the private Washington—when alone with his family or his trusted aides—was a different person, laughing, joking, even telling bawdy jokes to his friends and laughing uproariously. Though not exactly a dandy, the tall, admired Washington was always conscious of the need to appear at his best. He did design his own (and his regiments’) uniforms, and he wore his thick, abundant hair long and powdered it rather than resorting to a wig like most of his contemporaries. (We’ll talk about why people felt the need to powder their wigs—or hair—another time.) Okay, you may be wondering about the plausibility of F: How could someone die from politeness? Well, here’s how: Washington loved to entertain guests at Mount Vernon. One day, he’d been riding over the plantation as he loved to do and had gotten soaked in a cold rain. Arriving home to find guests for dinner, rather than changing into dry clothes and making them wait on him, George insisted on sitting down to supper in his cold, wet clothes. He came down with pneumonia and died as a result.

9. This too is a trick question, because the correct answer is “all of the above.” Washington loved his family and his plantation, and was never happier than when puttering around the place, trying out the latest agricultural and horticultural developments, and spending time with his beloved family and close friends. He loved entertaining guests, even if they were what we’d call hangers-on or groupies, folks who showed up unannounced at Mount Vernon just to see the great Washington with their own eyes. As noted, his feelings for his guests ultimately led to his untimely death. And Washington, who grew up on horseback, loved nothing better than to spend a day riding over his land.

10. The correct answer is really “all of the above.” Though his contemporaries—including King George III of England—and historians would tell you the answer was E, giving America an unprecedented example by walking away from a crown and/or a president-for-life appointment, every answer has merit. Martha’s wealth enabled George to set himself up among Virginia’s first families, which helped him achieve prominence.  Winning the Revolutionary War and becoming the young America’s first president need no additional commentary from me. But freeing his slaves and dying out of debt do. Pretty much all the Founders realized that slavery was insupportable, an abomination, and a gross hypocrisy as they ranted on about freedom. But only two of them did anything about it: Old Ben Franklin and George Washington. Ben freed his few slaves during his lifetime, and founded the first abolitionist society in the Colonies. But Washington had a more complex situation. Not only did he, like all Southern planters of his day, own many slaves, but they actually belonged to his wife, Martha. So in a sense, his achievement was greater. He spent many years weaning Mount Vernon off  labor-intensive crops like tobacco so it wouldn’t be reliant on slave labor to produce income. And he made it an article of his will that all the Mount Vernon slaves would be freed (and educated, so they could establish themselves in the trade of their choice) upon Martha’s death. (Rising to the occasion, she actually freed them immediately after his death.) By comparison, that so-called beacon of freedom Thomas Jefferson not only fathered innumerable children on one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, but left them all, including his own children (one was lucky enough to secure his freedom during Jefferson’s life), to be sold into perpetual slavery to strangers after his death. Which brings me to the last point: Jefferson died in massive debt, which he dumped on his heirs, who actually had to sell his beloved Monticello as well as his slaves. This was not at all unusual in an age when it was important to live expensively while completely ignoring the sources of one’s income, such as a tobacco-depleted land. George Washington, by contrast, worked hard to diversify agriculture at Mount Vernon, reduce the need for labor, and get rid of greedy, soil-depleting crops like tobacco. He was also a shrewd speculator, and bought properties with potential as they came on the market. As a result, he left his widow and heirs with a comfortable fortune as opposed to a pile of debt.

So happy birthday, George! There was only one George Washington. But we can all be inspired by his example to make both the most and the best of who we are.

Solar Power for the People! February 20, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,

Our friend Ben has ranted about this before, but having just received an e-mail from the Mother Earth News with the subject line “Is solar power right for you?” has inspired me to rant about it again. Mind you, our friend Ben loves Mother. I happen to know the editor-in-chief and many of the contributors, so I know that their passion for responsible, earth-friendly living is genuine and their integrity is impeccable. They’re the real deal. But solar energy—our greatest hope for an endlessly renewable free source of heat, light, and power—is not the real deal. And it won’t be until it’s made easy and affordable.

Look at it this way: You don’t have to be an electrical engineer to use electricity. Somebody else sets up your system, and all you have to do is plug stuff in, flip a switch, and change the occasional lightbulb. No pain, big gain, right? Beyond changing lightbulbs and occasionally flipping a switch on the circuit breaker or replacing a burnt-out power strip, there’s not much maintenance required, at least on the part of the homeowner.

Not so in the case of solar power. You almost have to be a solar engineer to maintain your system, with its battery banks, AC-to-DC converters, positioning of solar panels, and the like. Then there’s the issue of buying special (and inevitably more expensive) DC appliances, not to mention the initial cost of buying, installing and maintaining the system itself.

Admittedly, solar has come quite a long way, especially in terms of small solar-powered appliances and systems that are connected to the grid, using electricity from the powerlines when solar energy isn’t available and selling energy back to the power company when solar energy is abundant. This sort of setup precludes the need for massive battery banks and the like, but it still uses electricity. And it’s still too expensive for the average homeowner.

In my youth, our friend Ben believed that electricity was water-powered and was an endlessly renewable resource: All those hydroelectric dams just kept pumping out the power, didn’t they? Well, guess not. As our population and resource consumption grows, we divert more and more water to our homes and yards, draining the water tables and the very watercourses that generate that electricity.* Meanwhile, our need for electricity just keeps on growing and growing as we use more and more energy-hogging appliances and build ever-bigger homes. And apparently, we’re meeting that ever-expanding need by generating electricity from non-renewable resources like coal and oil. Yikes!!!

Wind power is certainly an option, but only where it’s windy. But the sun shines down on us all. What a simple and perfect solution to our energy needs! If only, if only, somebody could make it cheap and user-friendly.

I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s still the one that works best for me: Somebody should do for solar energy what they did for computers. Back in the distant day, computers were monstrous structures called mainframes that occupied entire rooms and took mathematicians to operate. Now anybody can plug in their affordable, easy-to-use laptop (or you name it), or just power it up and go. This has been true of many forms of technology, from the giant box camera to the cell phone camera, from the massive old Victrolas to the iPod.

So please, solar engineers, please: Make solar energy work for us! Make it work for those of us who are on tight budgets; make it work for those of us who are technologically or intellectually challenged. Make it as easy to use as electricity, please! Our Mother Earth will thank you.

* This whole water issue confused our friend Ben for many years. Didn’t water cycle, evaporating and falling, running through our plumbing and back into the ground, and so on? Wasn’t water a constant, rather than a finite resource that could be used up? Then why were the environmentalists all up in arms about our dwindling water supply? Despite a Master of Science degree, I’m no scientist (my M.S. is in horticulture), so my hypothesis may be all wrong. But it finally occurred to me that our water supplies must be dwindling because we’re holding the water rather than releasing it back to the atmosphere and waterways: holding it in our own bodies as our population continues to grow and grow; holding it in lawn grasses where lawns were never meant to be; holding it for industrial, urban, and agricultural purposes; and so on. If that’s true, it would explain why our water resources continue to dwindle.

The new old-fashioned way. February 19, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,

As you all know, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood aren’t big on buying new stuff. That’s why we call ourselves Luddites. We can spend hours in an antiques mall admiring old things—things that were used, valued, and loved by previous generations, sometimes passed down through many generations. But please don’t ask us to go to a shopping mall, anytime, anywhere. Mass-produced, cheaply made, generic, and unattractive aren’t words that work for us. We agree with the sign in front of a local antiques mall that says “Go Green, Buy Vintage.”

But of course, there are exceptions. We were just reading a post, “A Little Perspective,” over at Cinj’s Chat Room (http://cbmvwag.blogspot.com/), in which Cinj was urging us all to become a little more self-reliant and a lot more reasonable in our views on how much is enough. This is a mindset we can wholeheartedly endorse. But if you choose to become more self-sufficient, to grow some of your own food, do a little home canning, even hang out your laundry rather than running the dryer, you need the right tools and resources in order to succeed.

Silence and our friend Ben are fortunate in this respect: We live in an area with a large Amish and Mennonite population, so we can go to stores like Weaver’s Hardware just outside the nearby village of Lyons, PA and find everything from canning supplies to kerosene lamps, as well as a huge selection of garden seeds and books on gardening, livestock, cooking and canning, and other DIY topics. (And yes, they have quite an assortment of clotheslines and clothespins.)

But what if you don’t have access to a store like this? What if you want to give your kids beautifully crafted, USA-made wooden toys instead of cheap plastic imports? What if you’d like to get a set of durable glass storage dishes and stop worrying about what’s leaking out of that plastic and into your food, or buy a well-made wheelbarrow, a stoneware water cooler, or ingenious hand tools such as an angle weeder?

There is a source, and its catalogues are an education in self-reliant living: Lehman’s (www.lehmans.com, with 24/7 ordering at 1-877-438-5346). Established to supply non-electric products to the Amish and Mennonite populations surrounding Kidron, Ohio, Lehman’s still offers an incredible range of human-powered and old-time (but still useful) tools and supplies. But it also offers modern self-reliant aids like solar-powered and hand-cranked flashlights, radios, and the like. Our friend Ben and Silence have never been disappointed by any of the items we’ve purchased from Lehman’s over the years (Silence got her starter canning system from them). Our one regret is that we can’t afford to buy more! 

We suggest that you head over to www.lehmans.com, order a catalogue, and check it out for yourselves. If nothing else, it’s bound to inspire you to think of at least a couple of things you could do to reduce your bills and be more self-reliant! And for you lucky folks living in the vicinity of Kidron, Lehman’s has a huge store. Please let us know if you visit them—we often imagine roaming the aisles and checking everything out (including the gorgeous wood cookstoves). Maybe one day…

Ben drops in (again). February 18, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: ,

Our friend Ben was in the process of watching the snow fall and nodding off—I mean, busily editing a freelance assignment—when a sharp rapping at the front door snapped me back to consciousness. “Make haste, won’t you, Ben, lad?” a distinctly male voice boomed. “This snow is ruining my stockings!”

Dreading to think what awaited me on the other side of the door, I gingerly pulled back the curtain to reveal none other than our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin. “Uh, Doctor Franklin, an unexpected pleasure! Please come in!” I stepped back hastily as the portly form burst into the room, festooning me with snow-covered frock coat, coonskin cap (an affectation that had endeared him to the French), and walking stick. “High time, dear boy! Who were you expecting, brigands?! Brrrr!!! Toss a few more logs in the woodstove, won’t you? And I don’t suppose you have any hot spiced rum punch in the house, by any chance?”

Disposing of the cane and outerwear and positioning a rocking chair and footstool in front of the fireplace, our friend Ben stoked the stove and went to see what could be stirred up in the way of rum punch. (Unfortunately, Silence was once again out shopping, as she had been the first time Dr. Franklin chose to favor our friend Ben with a visit.) Recalling old Ben’s appetite, I scrambled together a huge plate of assorted cheeses, crackers, and dried fruit, as well as some freshly sliced apples, while the spiced rum was heating up.

Staggering in with a groaning tray of treats and a large mug of hot rum punch, I found Dr. Franklin with his hands and feet extended towards the flames, looking much like a contented cat. However, his eyes snapped open at the sight of food.

“Ah, thank you, dear boy—I don’t mind admitting that I was feeling in need of a bite. But, um, don’t you have any hot bread or rolls to enjoy with this cheese? And butter? And perhaps a bit of chutney?!”

“Er, there’s a half-pan of Silence’s wonderful cornbread from last night. But surely cornbread isn’t really suitable?” I said, thinking sadly of my long-anticipated lunch.

“Nonsense, dear boy! A bit rustic, perhaps, but I’d not turn my nose up at some hot buttered cornbread. A half pan, I think you said?! And don’t forget the chutney!”

Aaaarrgghhh!!! No rest for the wicked, or in this case, the sleepy and starving. By the time I’d popped the cornbread in the toaster oven, extracted the butter and chutney from the fridge, and returned to the living room, Dr. Franklin had roused himself and was standing by the coffeetable perusing an album of stamps I’d left lying there.

“What’s this, Ben lad? The Postage Stamp Life of Benjamin Franklin?!! I trust this isn’t a reference to that unfortunate Stamp Act incident. Dear, dear, it still brings on the megrims just to think of it!”  

“Oh, no sir!” I hastened to reassure the suddenly red-faced patriot. “And please recall that you were in fact the hero of the Stamp Act business. It’s thanks to your efforts that Britain decided to repeal the Stamp Act. If memory serves, that incident established your reputation as a diplomat, isn’t that true?”

“Well, I suppose, if you put it that way. Still, it was a damned unpleasant business from first to last. A very close call, if you ask me! But if this isn’t about the Stamp Act, then what do they mean by ‘Postage Stamp Life’?!”

“Uh, sir, this is an album of all the postage stamps that have been issued in America to honor you as the founder of our postal system, and to celebrate the life of the Colonists and the Revolution. In your day, I believe they franked letters, but now we stamp them to pay for their delivery. The stamps are supposed to honor the subjects they depict.”

“Hmmmm… ” (perusing the album) “Washington, yes of course… Jefferson… Adams—a bit unstable, Adams… Madison (oh, dear)… Marshall… ah, John Hancock, fine fellow, Hancock!… Lafayette… not as well regarded in France as here… and yes, Franklin this, Franklin that, Franklin the other, hmmm–hmmm–hmmm…

“You know, dear boy, some of these depictions of me aren’t exactly flattering! Surely I never looked so wooden and dour! You’d have thought they’d mistook me for George Washington, God rest him! A great man, but not much for affect, if you take my meaning.”

“Uh, quite right. But did you notice the envelope just there?” I pushed a first-day-of-issue envelope in front of old Ben’s specs. “What’s odd about this?”

“Hmmm, well, it says ‘Presidential Series, First Day of Issue,’ but instead of showing General Washington or another of our presidents, it shows me, Benjamin Franklin! Whatever could it mean?” 

“Well, sir, the very first issue of the Presidential Series, a half-cent stamp from back in 1938, honors you as founder of our postal system. If it weren’t for you, we’d have no stamps at all!” I gave this a minute to sink in, then added, “And by the way, you’re the only non-president in the Presidential Series, as well as the first. I guess the folks at the top were trying to endorse what many historians have said, that you’re the greatest president who never served in that office.”

“Ah—ahem!—too kind, dear boy. But sadly, I was too old, and even had that not been the case, I would never have wanted to take the honor from the noble Washington. I am fortunate to have enjoyed so many honors in life that there was no need to take them all.”

Fastidiously dusting the last butter-encrusted crumbs of cornbread from his fingers, Dr. Franklin rose laboriously from the rocking chair. “Hat, cane, coat, dear boy! I really must be off now! Much to do before my evening engagement with the Philosophical Society. They’ve asked me to give a presentation on my findings about the benefits of swimming on the brain! I, ah, don’t suppose you have another mug of that rum punch to warm me on my way?!”

Staggering back to the kitchen with a pile of crumbs, crusts, peels, and cheese wrappers, I hastily refilled the mug with the last of the hot rum and brought it to the door. Downing it in one gulp, old Ben clapped his fur hat on his head, brandished his walking stick, bellowed “Heigh-ho, dear boy! See you anon!” And he vanished into the drifting snow. 

Completely exhausted, our friend Ben sought the consolation of the couch, but had barely closed my eyes before I was confronted by a raging fiend, I mean, by an outraged Silence Dogood.

“BEEEENNNNN!!! What are you doing there?! I thought you were supposed to be working! And what happened to all the cheese in the refrigerator? And the cornbread that I’d planned to reheat for our dinner? And our butter? And all the dried fruit? And why is there an empty bottle of rum on the counter? What on earth have you been doing?!!”

“Uh, urk, I didn’t eat it! Really, Silence! It wasn’t me! It was, ah…”

“Please. PLEASE don’t tell me you’ve been entertaining Benjamin Franklin again. Don’t even try to pull that off again! Unless, of course, you’d like to make an appointment to see a nice psychiatrist. I’m sure there are dozens around here!”

“Uh… ”

“Right.” (Poking OFB in the belly.) “It wasn’t you, was it?! But of course you’re going to get in the car and get us more butter and cheese and crackers and fruit and, hmmm, rum, anyway, aren’t you? Because you’re just so sweet.”

Somehow, our friend Ben recalls a similarly unfortunate outcome the last time Dr. Franklin decided to drop in. Frankly, I’m wondering if it’s too late to change our address, unlist our number, or even sell up and move to an undisclosed location. But I have a terrible feeling that, no matter what I do, like Ah-nold Schwarzenegger, Dr. F. will be baaaaack…